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Let the army decide whom to promote!

By Colonel Anil A Athale (retd)
Last updated on: April 01, 2015 16:04 IST
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'Imagine a situation where the army's top brass is annihilated in one fell swoop with colonels, brigadiers and generals shedding their ranks and their place being taken by others from arms and services which are not even remotely connected to the working of the fighting arms.'

'The government must make clear once and for all that promotions in the Indian Army are not the right of individuals, but a privilege given in accordance with role and function,' says Colonel Anil A Athale (retd).

Some time ago while writing about the challenges for newly-appointed Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar I had pointed out how the entire armed forces structure/expenditure is geared towards the most unlikely possibility of World War II type conventional conflict.

As the defence minister settles down to tackle these issues, a bolt from the blue in the shape of a tribunal ruling has thrown a giant size spanner in the works. This whole chain of thought has been triggered by the Armed Forces Tribunal's ruling of March 2.

In this ruling the quasi-judicial tribunal ruled that promotions to the pivotal rank of colonel (that is, commanding officers of units) are unfairly biased in favour of two army branches: The infantry and the artillery.

The tribunal held that the 'discriminatory' army promotion guidelines of 2009 denied 'equal opportunity of promotion to all officers of all corps of the Indian Army,' and ordered the reconvening of all promotion boards to the rank of colonel held since 2008.

In this review, vacancies would be equitably allocated to arms and services, based on 'pro rata' calculation of their actual officer strength.

One cannot comment on the judgment for fear of contempt of court. But one can point out the consequences. It seems to apply the logic of industrial disputes to an issue close to national security and consequent survival of the nation.

In sheer breadth and impact, the ruling, with retrospective effect to boot, is nothing short of revolutionary. Imagine a situation where the army's top brass is annihilated in one fell swoop with colonels, brigadiers and generals shedding their ranks and their place being taken by others from arms and services which are not even remotely connected to the working of the fighting arms.

The Indian Army will indeed be unique, where it will, according to this logic, be the first one to put on par an officer from a combat unit and one from a supply corps!

In the eyes of this logic, requirement of a special set of skills for special appointments -- say combat experience -- is no criterion.

The government has done the right thing by going in appeal against this ruling. Lieutenant Colonel Ajai Shukla in his column Don't Divide the Army, Mr Defence Minister has lauded this 'revolutionary' ruling and chided the minister for going in appeal to the Supreme Court.

I totally disagree with Shukla's argument and feel the government done the right thing by going in appeal.

The government must once and for all wrest back the administrative prerogative of deciding on the system of incentives and structures based not on some judicial principle, but on its prerogative to structure the armed forces according to need.

It needs to make clear once and for all that promotion is not a right of an individual, but a privilege given in accordance with role and function.

Some time ago I had an occasion to participate in a debate over opportunities for women in the armed forces. Mine was the lone voice pleading that the job of the armed forces is neither to promote gender equality nor bring about social reforms.

The sole purpose for which the armed forces exist is to successfully and efficiently win wars for the country. Their job is to protect democracy and the rule of law, not practice it.

Warfare in essence is a lawless activity where might is the only right. Using any other criterion like morality, justice etc is an invitation to disaster.

Unfortunately we Indians have been historically so obsessed with Dharma that we have forgotten that the only Dharma for a soldier (and by its extension the armed forces) is victory in war.

Shukla has produced statistics to show how the promotion policy favours the infantry and the artillery. This is not new or news. The infantry as the largest single arm of the army always had better promotion prospects.

The flip side of the coin is that the infantryman is the only one who has seen 'actual' fighting as opposed to mock exercises. He is also the only one who, in so-called peace times suffers privations like separation from family.

Shukla also throws in the argument of merit. How do you judge the comparative merit of say two majors -- one fighting militants in Kashmir and another excelling in war discussions. Should the army favour the latter over the former when it knows for a long time to come the single biggest threat to the nation's security is insurgency.

The armed forces design the force structure and personnel to man them based on the assessment of threat and the likelihood of a type of conflict it may have to fight.

In matters of personnel policy, it tries to match 'horses to courses'! Tribunals or judicial authorities have neither the information nor the capability to analyse threats and forces required to meet those threats and the best way to man them. These are matters best left to the armed forces leadership and the government of the day.

The bias towards some branches of the army is not unique. In the air force it is the fighter arm and in the navy the executive arm that man most of the command positions and have disproportionately larger share in promotions.

The armed forces are not a 'welfare' organisation, but strictly geared to performance. Nowhere in the world are the forces 'equitable' when it comes to opportunity for career advancement.

The dilemma that we face is similar to what the US faced during the long running Vietnam war. While the whole country is at 'peace' only in a portion of it -- Jammu and Kashmir, the North-East and the Naxalite-dominated zones -- a low intensity war is going on. What is true of the nation at large is also true of the armed forces, especially the army.

For the last two decades it is mainly the infantry and artillery that has borne the brunt of this fighting. It is also the assessment of most defence analysts that low intensity conflicts and insurgencies are the most likely future threat. World War II type combat using large mechanised forces is a remote possibility thanks to nuclear weapons and the fear of escalation.

In a very important work that has a haunting air about it, Ward Just (Military Men, published in 1970) sketched a portrait of the American dilemma that has some relevance to India of the 21st century. 'The US army are caught up by the same forces that are rocking and transforming all of American society,' Just wrote. 'There is a question whether an organisation grounded so firmly on discipline can continue to function in a society that is coming to value discipline so little.'

The Armed Forces Tribunal has thrown up these questions. The government is indeed right in going to the Supreme Court against the ruling that has potential to destabilise the army. Alongside this, it is time that the executive wrests back the functions of managing the structures, personnel policy and strategies from judicial overreach that is the result of 10 years of paralysis of governance.

Colonel Anil A Athale (retd) is a military historian who headed the War Studies Division at the ministry of defence. Currently, he is the coordinator of the Indian Initiative for Peace, Arms-control & Disarmament.

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